Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Fermi Paradox: Where are they?

Any discussions of the size of the universe will lead to the Fermi Paradox: given the enormous numbers of stars and the billions of years of existence of the universe, it seems obvious that life must have evolved zillions of times, and advanced space-faring civilizations can't be too uncommon. So where are they?

Consider our own Milky Way galaxy, with roughly a trillion stars. If only one out of a thousand stars has planets that develop life as we know it (as happened to the Earth quite early, some 4 billion years ago), and only one out of a thousand of those managed to develop complex life (as began on Earth about 500 million years ago), and only one out of a thousand of those developed intelligent life with a technological civilization, then there should still be a thousand such civilizations in the Milky Way. Where are they?

Also note that our sun is relatively young at 4.6 billion years. The oldest stars in the Milky Way are some 13 billion years old. Time for a little digression.

Man is an aggressive species. That may well be the case for all technological civilizations, as the humble are likely to huddle and die instead of expand and thrive. If we assume that mankind successfully moves into space (such as our own asteroid belt and cometary halo--see Our homes, the Comets), it is likely--nay, inevitable--that mankind will slowly advance into the cosmos in spite of the speed of light. It may take hundreds of years for a self-sufficient mobile comet to travel from our sun's environment to another star, but there they will find more comets. Room to grow, resources to thrive.

If we assume that only one interstellar colony is founded every hundred years by the inhabitants of Sol's Oort cloud, and then after a hiatus of a thousand years, each of the new star systems begins it own replication, slowly, one colony every hundred years, then humanity will still sweep over the entire galaxy, occupying the cometary halos of all of the stars in the Milky Way in only five or ten million years.

This is a tiny span of time in geologic terms, and a blink of the eye in the life of the universe. How could it not have happened, thousands of times already? That is the essence of the Fermi Paradox.

We see zero evidence of other life, let alone technological civilizations, present or past. The SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project has searched the skies since 1960 with zero tangible results. We have found zero evidence that alien intelligences have visited the Earth in the past, and of course no evidence that they are here now.

Are there alternative explanations? Of course. Perhaps they wish to stay hidden (a non-interference doctrine). Perhaps their technology is so advanced that we can't recognize it, or simply works in a way we aren't looking for. Perhaps the scale of their lifespeed or technology is such that we can't recognize it (nanobots, or perhaps they only appear for a millisecond every millenia). Perhaps they are from an ocean world and we should be looking miles beneath the surface where they maintain a lab. Water worlds should be much more common than Earth-like worlds--see Earthlike Planets.

And perhaps they are computers, not terribly interested in mere, slow, organic life, and their presence will be obvious once we speed up our perceptions and intelligence by a few orders of magnitude.

In some ways, the alternatives are frightening. The odds of us being the first technological civilization in the galaxy seem remote. That leaves the likelihood that life is precious and rare, or that the universe is a very dangerous place and we will soon succumb to the odds. Supernova, gamma-ray bursters, enormous black holes in every galaxy spewing deadly torrents of radiation, supervolcanoes, solar flares, not to mention planet-busting asteriods, all pose threats to civilization and life itself.

Or still worse, there is a chance that intelligence is the opposite of a survival characteristic. Perhaps we are dooming ourselves by squandering our resources, changing the ecology of the planet, or will effect the same result by blowing ourselves up. Perhaps every time intelligence appears, some idiot invents a super-bug which destroys all life, or creates advanced computers which eliminate all competing intelligent life. Or perhaps there is some simple experiment that every intelligent species eventually tries that destroys their home planet.

It may only be a matter of time.

3 comments:

Walter Clark said...

Hi Stephen,

You missed the one possible reason why we've never seen/discovered/noticed (pick one or more) other civilizations/life forms. Maybe Genesis is right and all this started a little over 6,000 years ago, through the creation by Jehovah God, and all the theories that claim otherwise are just fictions dreamed up by those who don't want to believe the truth.

Valerie said...

There is plenty of evidence of ET life on earth as far as I can tell. Pardon the nerd at the beginning of this video as he expresses his anger that the government hid all the ET's and other evildoers on earth. This is just one video below of many testimonies of aliens on earth working with the government.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1P4N3Dl-AI&feature=related

michael Hanlon said...

Postulation's possible answers: there is other life (1); there isn't other life (2).
(1) we and many have gone on for days, some even earn livings writing about it, about why we cannot find it if it's there..An answer to #2(Beavis & Butthead: "Hee Hee, yoiu said number two!) can explain why we can't
(2)Frank Drake, @ some school out west, formulated an equation into which one plugs the various elements that go into the probability of life evolving in our galaxy. Carl Sagan made this equation his own and told the rest of us about it. It considers the odds of earth like planets, at a certain distance from their sun, where liquid water exists on the surface, that the sun is a stable main sequence type of a yellow star, that asteroids haven't crashed and destroyed the existing flora and fauna, etc.
I have spent thirty five of my years trying to get people to understand that Frank forgot a factor in the equation. (I have writen him, but received no response) That factor missing from the list is that Intra-galactic events can occur. He rightfully believes that the center of the milkWay is too harsh radioactively for life but sees no problems out here that, beyond super novae, might influence the probability. I contend that Singularities, Black Holes or what I call Gravitational Infinities, spring into existence even out here in the 'Boonies'. Hawking says they 'merge' and get bigger then evaporate. By his own admission, even ones formed at the beginning of our universe's time would still be around for it would take zillions and zillions of years for one to dry up. So, like your Fermi Paradox where are they? I further contend that they collide and when that happens, they cancel each other out and "disappear". In the collision all their matter is spewwed out into a tangential plane. Preceeding that matter would be a release of energy in that plane. That wave of energy would travel through the MW and destroy any life it touched. We have an example of that collision occurring right now (well, 7,500 light years ago) in the Homunculus of eta Carinae. Look it up, you'll see what I'm talking about. One hundred fifty years ago, the instruments available recorded the brightening of the star. Perhaps that was the beginning of the collision and we were spared the brunt of the energy wave because we aren't lying fully in the plane. Now we look with our better tools and see the matter skirt being thrown out.
When millions of years ago those two Ginfins collided (they do circle each other and come close orbitally evey million years or so) they sent out a wave of radiation strong enough to cause the dinosaur extinction event. It was hundreds of years later (instantaneously geologically) that comets perturbed by that wave of energy alone, rained rocks onto the earth. Now we look at the record and think, rock then die, when it was really tan to death, then rock.
It all has bearing on the power of photon impacts. But, that' a matter for another page.
Here, let it be said that the proper conditions for intelligent life are so impropable that it is a miracle it has arisen here. There may have been others before. If they were hit unexpectedly by a gamma wave, well, they wouldn't be around to warn us.
and now my swirlly word treat for veing so verbose. And the word is..sestrops. dang.. edit now another word.. it's.. ditionje